Immersed in a Memoir about Life, Love and Loss

by Jerry Waxler

Read how our collective interest in turning life into story is changing the world, one story at a time.

I wrestled with the decision to read Eleanor Vincent’s memoir, Swimming With Maya about losing her college-age daughter. Did I really want to experience so much pain? However, memoirs about suffering also offer the author’s courage and personal growth, two of my favorite features of memoirs. After I previewed the writing style and assured myself of its quality, I dove in. By the end, I felt fulfilled and inspired by the author’s journey through heart-breaking tragedy to find meaning and dignity.

Early in the book, the author’s daughter Maya dies from a freak accident and as a result, the mother can’t face life. Stuck in agony about her lost daughter, she herself is lost. The quest to find herself carries me through the book like a rafter on rapids. On every page, I wonder, “how she is going to learn to live again?”

Jumping into the memoir Swimming with Maya feels like an immersion in love and longing. The author’s love for her lost daughter is nearly overwhelming, larger than life, larger and deeper than everything. Eleanor Vincent spends every waking minute torn between the past and her own need to figure out how to move on.  The love story of a child who is gone forever vibrates with authenticity and power.

During this long period of grief she grabs onto every possible technique to reduce her pain. She attempts to keep her daughter alive by savoring every moment they had together. And since she believes in life after life, she even talks to Maya and feels her presence. In an unusual twist, Maya also lives in the chest of a man who received a heart transplant supplied by the dying girl. Caught by her fixation on her daughter, Eleanor establishes a relationship with this organ recipient and his family.

Eleanor Vincent’s grief is made more complicated by fears that she caused her daughter’s accident. Was she a bad mother? What could she have done differently? She feels trapped by these questions. Her obsessive guilt is yet another way she keeps Maya alive, turning their relationship over and over in her mind. She rips herself apart to get to the bottom of why she raised Maya so poorly.

This period of self-examination reveals many unattractive aspects of her own life. Her impulses to leave men for no particular reason, to betray men, to move on a whim, put me in an awkward position. I feel judgment rise in my throat. I don’t like these choices. She should have provided a more stable environment for her children. At the same time, I admire her for exploring herself, looking for meaning and answers.

This strange bittersweet mix of criticizing her actions and admiring her willingness to examine them provides one of the most profound gifts of reading memoirs. Rather than looking at this clumsy mothering from outside and clucking my tongue in disapproval, I’m inside her mind, with her, trying to figure it all out.

To overcome her obsessive guilt, she talks to her therapist about her own childhood. She grew up in an environment as chaotic as the one she gave Maya. Her own history gives her clues about her own bad mothering decisions. Then she dives one level deeper and pieces together her own mother’s story. Her mother too had a chaotic childhood.

The story of Eleanor Vincent’s inquiry into her past reveals another profound truth about reading and writing the stories of our lives. Behind each of our stories, are more stories, and as we peel them back and watch the layers fold and unfold, we become wiser about the way life works. This is therapy at its best and soul-searching memoir-writing at its best.

The way she peels back the layers of generations  puts her in the same category as Linda Joy Myers, Don’t Call Me Mother. Both memoirs offer insight into the multi-generational cause of family behavior.

Long Middle Gives Room to Grow and Change

During an epic story such as Lord of the Rings the hero must go through many trials and lessons over a long period. The sheer length of this long middle provides the hero with enough time to incorporate lessons into the fiber of his being. By the end of the story, he is essentially a different person than he was at the beginning.

Eleanor Vincent’s journey works in a similar way. She starts out with nothing but the pain and memories of a lost daughter. Then she gradually fills in blanks, while attempting to become a more accepting, wiser person. Her memoir is not only about gathering information. It’s about growing over time. A book with such a profound character arc fills me with hope about the human condition.

Some of my favorite memoirs achieve this goal, of growing over time, deeper and deeper, until the character at the end of the story thinks differently than at the beginning. Many of these are grieving stories, perhaps because grieving forces us to rethink ourselves in such profound ways. *

At the end of Swimming with Maya, I look back across the ground we’ve covered. From gut-wrenching sorrow, the exploration of many bad choices, and the search for new ways of growing, Eleanor Vincent relentlessly, courageously seeks comfort and insight. In gripping page after gripping page, her self-examination raises many intricate responses in my heart and mind. Judgments… compassion… wishing for a better past… working with her toward a better future. Watching her reactions and my own helps me grow wiser about this profound challenge of living gracefully despite death.

Amazon link to Swimming with Maya:

Eleanor Vincent’s Website

* Memoirs about the Long Journey to Maturity and Wisdom
Madeline Sharples, Leaving the Hall Light On about her survival of her son’s gruesome suicide, and many years of effort to move on.

Dawn Novotny, Ragdoll Redeemed about a woman who was sick of being limited by her passive self-image. Living in the shadow of her step-mother-in-law Marilyn Monroe. , She grew psychologically through the course of the book

Susan Richards, Saddled is a fascinating journey of a woman trying to find herself. A horse helped her grow.

Mary Johnson, Unquenchable Thirst showing her long journey into and through Mother Theresa’s religious organization, Missionaries of Charity.

John Robison, Look Me in the Eye shows a deeper understanding of self despite Asperger’s

Slash Coleman, Bohemian Love Diaries is about his attempt to find a deeper self. By the end of the book, he is wiser but reveals that he has not completed the journey.

More memoir writing resources

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Make sense of loss: Grieving in Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

Read how our collective interest in turning life into story is changing the world, one story at a time.

After losing a loved one we are hurled into an emotionally pressured period called “grieving.” Words can’t contain the initial shock, so we turn to ritual. After the funeral, our loss moves inside, throbbing as a constant reminder, later surfacing in random moments. Whether we overcome the shock quickly or linger in a demoralized state for years, the world has changed forever, breaking time into parts, before the loss and after. Gradually, we reclaim our strength, but we are not sure if these parts can ever be knitted together.

When we first approach our memoir writing project, we look back across the landscape of our lives. Our research awakens scenes, before, during, and after each great loss. Placing them in order, we revisit the whole sequence, from the joy of companionship, through the tragedy of the loss, and the courage to climb back.

To turn this sequence into a continuous narrative, we look for lessons from other authors who have done the same thing. Here are several examples of memoirs that describe the journey of grief. Each book demonstrates how to collect the upheavals of life into the container of a story.

Love letter to the deceased

Gail Caldwell’s memoir, Let’s Take the Long Way Home, is like a love letter to her perfect friend, Caroline Knapp. The book celebrates their friendship and then passionately reveals the journey beyond their friendship. In Gail Caldwell’s beautiful book, death cannot steal such a precious bond.

Losing a child

In the first half of Losing Jonathan by Linda and Robert Waxler, the parents try to drag their son back from the brink of addiction, and then after his death, they must come to terms with their grief. The book offers much wisdom about the role of philosophy, literature, and community support in the journey to cope with loss.

Losing a husband and finding a path

At the beginning of  Here If You Need Me, by Kate Braestrup, a young mother loses her husband in a freak auto accident. Then she must raise her young children, and at the same time make peace with God’s plan. To achieve both goals, she decides to earn a living as a minister.  In seminary, she studies the Bible, delving into it not as the final word but as an inspiring source to help her learn and grow. I love her brand of seeking, a mix of organized religion, faith, and real world observation.

An essayist describes her own grief

At the beginning of Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s husband dies suddenly and she turns her prodigious powers of observation on herself, describing the resulting thoughts and feelings. Unlike other writers in this list, Didion did not reach toward a spiritual system or a belief in the transcendent. The absence of this dimension turns the tragedy into a barren ache that leaves me feeling helpless in the face of mortality.

Grieving and seeking are intimately related

Generally the word “grieving” describes the journey of recovering from the loss of a loved one. Similar emotional repair is often needed after losing anything we love. After the tragedy of 9/11, we realized that normal life could suddenly explode and turn into a nightmare. Our sense of safety was dead, and we had to find our way back.

Dani Shapiro’s memoir Devotion is about her journey to recover from both types of loss, the death of her father years before and her need to make sense of the fragility of life. She explores that sadness, and the need to make sense of it, not only emotionally, but more importantly, to find belief in something greater than herself. In “Devotion” the process of grieving becomes intimately related to the process of seeking a higher truth.

My Family’s Grieving

There is no particular time frame around grieving and in fact the process can be substantially delayed. When my brother died, I was in the middle of a confusing period of my life. I did not process my feelings about him until thirty years later when I saw the whole sequence come to life in the pages of my memoir. By writing, I was able to feel a closer connection to him and deeper understanding of my own feelings.

In the development of my memoir, I also saw how his death shook the family and how each of us came to terms with it in our own way. Decades after my brother’s death, my father still appeared to be shaken. Like other men of his generation, he remained silent about his emotions right up to the end. My mother on the other hand, went on a journey of self discovery. She learned from yogis, rabbis, television preachers, and books. Over the years, I watched her grow. Even as she became wiser, she was never satisfied and continued to learn.

Writing Prompt

What loss have you touched upon in your memoir research? Write a scene before the loss, when you felt an innocent, joyful sense of connection. Write another one soon after the loss, then several more scenes later, as your emotional response evolved. Set these scenes out on a time line, and graph the ups and downs of one of your emotions. Try hope for example, or faith. Fill in additional scenes along the line to offer you and your reader a richer understanding of the evolution of this emotion over time.

More memoir writing resources

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Revealing Death and Other Courageous Acts of Life

by Jerry Waxler

I met Robert Waxler online last year when I was reviewing his memoir  “Losing Jonathan” about his son’s heroin addiction. During the first half of the book, Robert and his wife Linda tried to stop their son’s downward slide. In the second half, they grieved his passing. I admired his courage to share this journey and was even more impressed by Robert’s second memoir, “Courage to Walk,” about another family tragedy. His surviving son, Jeremy, was stricken with a mysterious, deadly illness and the book is about the family’s journey to stay hopeful and safe.

As an English professor at the University of Massachusetts, Robert has been delving into the power of the written word for a lifetime. Now, as he looked for strength to sustain him through his trials, he turned to the deep insights shared by his favorite authors. And then he turned to books again, as the vehicle through which he could pass his story to readers.

In addition to our mutual interest in literature, naturally we were curious about our shared last name. Neither of us had ever met a Waxler to whom we weren’t related. Over the course of the year, we discussed the possibility of giving a joint presentation about memoirs. Recently, I arranged such a talk sponsored by the Philadelphia Writers Conference.

Robert and Linda drove down from Dartmouth, Massachusetts a day early to do some sightseeing. We agreed to meet outside the museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall in Philadelphia; a fitting backdrop, since his ancestors and mine were Russian Jewish immigrants. My sister joined us to extend our greetings, one Waxler clan to another.

We sat in the coffee shop at the museum and talked with energy, jumping enthusiastically from one topic to another. Since our ancestral records no longer exist, we wondered if our easy flow indicated a shared ancestry. A woman walked by and Robert called out her name. She was an old friend of his and his wife’s from Massachusetts who just happened to be in this spot, hundreds of miles from home. My mother had an expression, “coincidence is God’s way of staying anonymous.” Was this a sign?

Even though we had agreed for months that we would give a joint presentation, I didn’t know exactly what that meant. How would we interact in a way that would bring value to our audience? The next morning over coffee, I proposed the way we would organize the talk, and he agreed. Then we drove to the lovely campus of Montgomery County Community College to a lecture hall where about 20 people were already seated, including two of my cousins. Linda Waxler, who coauthored “Losing Jonathan” sat in the back of the lecture hall with my sister and her husband. I smiled thinking how fitting it was that a memoir workshop had turned into a family affair.

I introduced the talk with the enthusiasm I always bring to this topic. “In the memoir age, we read books by people who spend years turning their lives into literature. Today we’re going to meet an English professor who turned to the written word to cope with his personal tragedy. Then in the second half, we’ll give you some pointers on how to turn your own lives into literature.”

Robert Waxler stood, radiating the authority that he had gained from a lifetime of teaching. He described how he grappled with his emotions and beliefs during Jonathan’s fall from a lovely, promising childhood into heroin addiction, and how he stood on that precipice between despair and faith. Then, he explained his decision to turn that experience into “Losing Jonathan.” Last year, when I read this memoir, I wrestled with my prejudice that English professors are not free to express this much frank emotion. What would his colleagues and students think? But now, listening to him speak so eloquently about how he placed these precious experiences on the page, it felt so right. As a man of letters, of course he wanted to locate these profoundly human events in the world of literature.

When he started, he seemed to be gathering his thoughts, selecting elements of his memory and intention. By the time he finished, his voice was strong and there was a cadence to his speech. I have always admired the way a good professor can lean into his topic and share not only his information but also his enthusiasm about the subject. Today, the professor enveloped us in his vision, not by speaking about someone else’s writing, but by sharing his own intentions as a writer, a father, and a human being.

Then it was my job to turn the audience’s attention back to their own goals. I realized there wasn’t enough time to conduct a real workshop, but in the small amount of time available, I wanted to convince everyone that the problems of writing a memoir are solvable. “When you look back through your memories, they fly out at you in a variety of bits and pieces, entangled in time, and at first only make sense to you. As you write scenes and accumulate them in sequence, they begin to take shape. As you see the material of your life take shape on the page, you gradually tame the flood of memories and begin to craft them into a story worth reading.”

After my portion of the talk, I opened the floor to questions. Ordinarily in memoir workshops the majority of questions are about how to write about life, but today the audience wanted to pour out their empathy to a couple who lost a child to drugs. One of the raised hands belonged to my cousin. In a shaky voice, she said, “Thank you so much for writing about this.” I could hardly hear her and asked her to say more. She continued, “I was twelve years old before I found that my uncle died. It was a suicide and no one would talk about it.”

I thought, “Oh. That family nightmare.” I was a little boy when my father’s nephew, after graduating medical school, had a mental breakdown and killed himself. The family immediately imposed a silence around the event, and I never understood the emotional impact. Now, I saw the shock in my cousin’s face these many years later.

Linda Waxler, from the back of the room, spoke up with a strong, purposeful voice. Looking directly at my cousin, Linda said, “That’s the reason we wrote “Losing Jonathan.” When he died, people pulled away from us. We wanted to educate people to understand that when someone dies, that’s the time to pull together. Silence is the most painful response.”

Their exchange reminded me that people have a tendency to hide extraordinary things about themselves, even events that cry out for compassion. I have heard the issue expressed in my memoir workshops, where writers express fear and uncertainty about how much of their lives to reveal. To direct the audience’s attention back to their own writing, I said, “We often think we must keep our secrets hidden in order to be accepted, but in fact, the secrets themselves keep us separated. Memoir writing lets us explore and share these parts of ourselves. When hidden material is told in a story, it takes on a universal quality that we can all relate to.”

My other cousin spoke up. “It’s true. We always had secrets. My mother wouldn’t tell any of her friends when I was divorced. No one wanted to talk about that back then.”

I responded, “Times are changing, and memoirs are helping break down these barriers. Jeannette Walls, author of the bestseller “Glass Castle,” said that before she wrote her memoir, she was deeply ashamed of her poor, chaotic childhood. Now, thanks to her book and others like it, we are sharing many things that once were hidden.”

At the end of the meeting, people gathered around to thank us. I love these moments after a talk when people pour back some of the energy that I poured out. I looked at Bob and smiled. If we had been forty years younger, we would have given each other high fives. As we said goodbye, Robert and I promised to do it again. “We can call ourselves the Two Waxlers,” I said, “and give talks about how memoirs matter.” “Yes, a road tour,” he said. “Let’s do it.”

I realized how comfortable I was with all these people, a comfort level that for most of my life had been entirely foreign to me. For decades, I felt distant from my family. Now I was wondering how much of my distance was based on my secret. After I left my childhood neighborhood in Philadelphia to go out into the world, I decided that being part of a minority religion made me an outsider. Writing my memoir has given me more confidence to accept all these parts of myself. Letting go of my secrets feels like letting go of my walls.

As I walked across the parking lot to my car, I thought about my mom’s image of a God who tries to let us know He is there, without really letting us know. I wondered how clever He might be feeling right now, arranging things so that an English professor and his wife could learn hard lessons about life, and then write and speak about what they learned to help other people get in touch with their own secrets. When I give memoir workshops, my focus in on helping other people learn about their own lives, but today I felt the guilty pleasure of having learned something about my own.

Notes

To read an essay I wrote about Robert Waxler’s memoir “Courage to Walk” click here.

To read an essay about “Losing Jonathan,” click here.

To read an interview with Robert Waxler about his memoirs, click here.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

A memoir of mourning helps make sense of loss

By Jerry Waxler

Read how our collective interest in turning life into story is changing the world, one story at a time.

The first half of the memoir “Losing Jonathan” by Robert and Linda Waxler is about their attempt to stop their son’s fall into heroin addiction. At the center of the story was a good kid, loved by his family and friends, a college grad bursting with potential and a desire to change the world. By the time his parents discovered his problem, all of that was tearing apart. Horrified to learn that Jonathan was in trouble, his parents were torn out of their ordinary lives and hurled into pleading and research, therapists and rehab.

They felt caught in the cruel undertow of drug addiction. Something was stealing their son and they couldn’t stop it. After a stint in rehab, they hoped he had returned to them. And then the call came. A tainted dose of heroin had ended his life. The second half of the book recounts the following years of their grieving. The book is told from both their points of view with Robert’s passages written in straight font and Linda’s in italics.

The father’s journey

During the year they knew about Jonathan’s addiction, Robert struggled to hold on to his own emotional center, relying on his family, friends, and his Jewish faith. After his son’s death, he turned even more desperately towards these supports. Meanwhile, his mind was churning, second-guessing what more he could have done, and struggling to make sense of a world in which such things could happen. Amidst his thoughts are wonderful images of the young boy in his earlier life, full of hope and promise.

Robert Waxler, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, has devoted his life to teaching literature as well as finding the wisdom within it. He believed so deeply in the power of writing that he founded a program called “Changing Lives Through Literature,” to help convicted criminals find their way to social responsibility.

So when he tried to cope with his own loss, he looked towards literature for help. In “Losing Jonathan,” he writes, “Literature helped me keep my anger in check. It gave me a sense of proportions, of tolerance. But it didn’t foreclose on passion, nor did it serve as an escape from Jonathan’s death. Sometimes standing in an empty room, I will yell out loud at Jonathan, even now, and wonder why this tragedy happened.”

The mother’s journey

Linda was so overwhelmed, she didn’t know what to say. Neither did her neighbors, coworkers, and acquaintances. So they avoided her. At the time when she needed the most support, she felt most alone.

“Losing Jonathan” revealed the effects of the passage of time, showing grieving as a sequence of inner adjustments. After a few years, Linda began to reclaim her poise enough to greet people and look them in the eye. Robert writes, “Near the end of the fourth year, Linda wrote her own article about grief, a stunning composite of her feelings and her knowledge. It was published in several places including the Providence Journal Sunday Magazine. She was stretching, touching others, rejoining a community, becoming a writer of her own life.”

In the fifth year, Robert writes, “We were like the wedding guest who listens to the tale of the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s poem, disturbed by the spell cast by his turbulent journey, but wiser now. At the end of the poem, the Mariner is gone, leaving the wedding guest to stand alone, forlorn, stunned into wonder at the vision:

And now the Wedding Guest
Turned from the bridegroom’s door.
He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn;
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.”

Many layers of grieving

Memoirs of grieving have a special place in my library, since they take me on the author’s spiritual journey, trying to reclaim the meaning of life after its loss. In another memoir, “Here if you need me,” Kate Braestrup wrote about losing her husband in a freak accident. Then, she had to get on with her life. In the end, she arrived at a lovely conclusion, summarizing her feelings about death in a compelling and uplifting chapter on good and evil. When I’m asked which memoir is my favorite, this is usually the one that comes to mind.

Now I realize after reading “Losing Jonathan” that I loved the Waxlers’ memoir for similar reasons. Like Kate Braestrup they were on a quest to wrest their sanity back from the abyss. At first they were thirsty for support from their community. Then, after five years, Linda suggested, “We should try to write a book. It would be a way of honoring Jonathan’s life. Sustaining it.” The suggestion reflected Linda’s desire to give back to the community some of the strength they had given her. And the vehicle for their gift was a book.

Publishing the book was a social act, a generous gift to each other and the world. I feel encouraged by the willingness of these authors to share their inner process with the rest of us, to give us insights, tips, and guidance to help us stay strong and wise during our own recovery from loss.

Click here for the Amazon page for Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler and Linda Waxler

Click here for the Amazon page for Waxler’s second memoir, Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler

Writing prompt
If you suffered a loss, describe the situation. Show the external signs of your suffering (tears, blank staring, incoherent cries, or inappropriate silences, pounding the wall). Show the impact on relationships (arguments, withdrawal). Write about how you tried to find meaning, (discussions, readings). Where did you turn to help you make sense? Describe the ideas that helped you patch together the universe. Write a scene that shows you emerging from the valley.

Notes about multiple voices in a memoir
I have read several memoirs that speak from more than one point of view. “Color of Water” by James McBride includes extensive passages taken from interviews with his mother. “The Kids Are All Right” is told by all four Welch siblings. In “My Father’s House” the author Miranda Seymour occasionally steps outside the narrative of the book to discuss its assertions with her mother. “Picking Cotton” is written in the voices of Jennifer Thompson-Cannino who was brutally raped, and Ronald Cotton, the man who served seven years in jail for the crime he didn’t commit.

Writing Prompt about multiple voices
Consider giving prominent characters in your story their own voice. If practical, interview these people. Observe the interplay between their perspective and yours and try to imagine how a memoir might include their observations or even their voice.

Another memoir that fast-forwards at the end
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg in “The Sky Begins at your Feet” continues with an epilog that shares the years of survival after her surgery. Coincidentally, Mirriam-Goldberg also believes in the power of literature to change lives and community. See her organization for literature and social change, Transformative Language Arts Network

Writing Prompt for epilogs
If you need to explain how life kept going after the presumed end of your memoir, consider tacking on a postscript that shows what happens after the main or central story is over.

Read an interview with Robert Waxler

To read an essay about Robert Waxler’s memoir, “Courage to Walk” click here.

Note

For another view of a son’s fall into addiction see the pair of memoirs: “Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff  and “Tweak” by Nic Sheff  see my essay, Matched pair of memoirs show both sides of addiction

More memoir writing resources

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Unbearable Courage of Living

By Jerry Waxler

To become more knowledgeable about living, I try to find out as much as I can about dying. This is easy information to find, because writers have so much to say on the subject. Death is such an important topic, Hemingway suggested to a young writer that he hang himself and have a friend cut him down just before he died so he would have something to write about.

Perry Foster, author of the memoir “Hands Upon My Heart: My Journey Through Heart Disease and Into Life” didn’t have to go to that extreme. Death came looking for him. Foster was an apparently healthy business man, until a cardiology exam. Then he found himself staring into the jaws of death and the only way to survive was to let masked people rip open his chest and stop his heart.

His memoir brought me face to face with the unbearable courage of living. He takes me to the waiting room, the gurney, and the operating room, and makes it easy to empathize with his predicament. While he’s a nervous wreck, so am I. He lets me feel his sweaty hands and his edgy outbursts so well it makes my skin crawl. He portrays a real flesh and blood character, not a cartoon caricature.

One of the things I learn is that when a real person is confronted by death, he doesn’t necessarily put on a happy face. Foster is afraid almost to paranoia that his care is inadequate. He accuses people of misleading him. And he is shocked that just when he thinks his situation is under control, he is back for another emergency visit to the cardiologist. His edgy reactions heighten my anxiety and while I would have intuitively thought such human frailty would have made me feel more distant, the end result is greater intimacy.

This treatment of death is so different from the way it is usually handled in fiction. In a murder mystery, for example, the victim might scream for a moment, then either expire or escape. In a war movie, bodies fly through the air, and die in droves, while the tough guy shrugs off pain. In Hands upon my heart, I linger in that state between life and death, grappling with the feelings, and trying to sort out what to do next. This is real human emotion, and I feel connected with his fear, anger, and confusion. As Natalie Goldberg would say, “this writing cuts close to the bone.”

In my desire to become a more alive human being, I can read Perry Foster’s book and learn about the project of bumping up against mortality, and coming back. And even though he didn’t claim to be tough or courageous, his experience inspires me to carry on as a person, and face the unknown.

Of course Perry Foster didn’t choose to be in this situation, and so it’s possible to dismiss his tale as simply reporting from the position of a victim. But one element of his experience did require a conscious choice. After he struggled through this painful and humiliating experience, being pushed along from doctor to doctor and feeling his life ticking away with every beat of his heart, he chose to write the story.

He didn’t have to do this. He could have kept his feelings private, and when someone said to him, “That must have been a heck of an experience” he could have just nodded, and said “Yes it was.” Instead, he undertook another arduous journey, this one of his own free will. He chose to write his story. He gained the skills, wrote the pages, and exposed his inner world to other people’s opinions.

Since I want to write about my life, I gain courage not only from his experience in the book but also his experience of the book. Within his lessons about his heart are embedded the other lessons about how one man faces the daunting task of translating his very personal life experience into a written story. And by assigning himself that task, Perry Foster has invested his own time and experience to help me learn to live a better life.

Read more about how life and death keep coming up in stories: “Life and Death in Memoir

The quote about Hemingway was taken from David Morrell’s book “Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing.” See more about Morrell’s work at http://www.davidmorrell.net

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